A Battle of Words

Hitting the Streets
, Raymond Queneau, translated by Rachel Galvin
(197pp, Carcanet)
In a Time of Burning,
Cheran, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom
(151pp, Arc Visible Poets)

Raymond Queneau (1903Đ1976), Fraench novelist, poet, and co-founder of Oulipo, was seriously comic, a friend of Surrealists, a flaneur of the unexpected, playful with language, is of the past while being (I reckon) newly very welcome again with this new translation. Cheran (b.1960), whose poems here come from three decades of writing, is Tamil, away now from the unsettled and unsettling Sri Lanka, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Windsor, Ontario. His mood and mode could hardly be further from Queneau's: I hope yet again that the translation, as the Arc books in particular might be, is a transposition for healing.

Both books are bilingual on facing pages. It will not be difficult for many people to double-check Queneau's French; Cheran's Tamil is something else to Western eyes. It is possible for me to see how his original poems, in stanzas, are shaped, and that the translations are faithful to their free-running, but (I suppose for most readers) that's about it. Cheran can be heard on YouTube reading, and there is a black and white filmed interview with Queneau, where someone has asked for sub-titles. He smiles as his poems smile.

Two Queneau poems on the same page convey his wandering around Paris:

     Vaugelas  Bouquiniste

       1 BOOK FREE

                               Rue LinnŽ

     The poor animals behind the bars of their enclosure
     hear all manner of jabber
     whether it's in the Jardin des Plantes or the Vincennes zoo
     what balderdash they give ear to
     the poor animals behind the bars of their enclosure
     deserve our pity
     for having to tolerate so much hooey
     but they go on grazing with composure
     the poor animals in their enclosure

The translator has over-egged the end rhymes; his third line ends with the named 'Zoo' and the fourth with 'pas comme propos idiots', neither rhyming there or elsewhere. The translator's Introduction, though, embraces this possibility, of engaging with the spirit of his poems, not always strict form for form (but always neatly more or less), impossible anyway in carrying over from one language to another, and it seems reasonable to say she has caught his engaged eye and his lightheartedness. We are 'hearing' a life lived. And the notion that poetry is news that stays news is applicable here, is of the essence. And it isn't that he refers repeatedly to what a journalist would call News, though there is that for us not least in how Paris has changed - as in parallel with the poems one sees in old photographs - but that he combines the observation as he passes by, on his way it seems to nowhere else in particular, and indirectly here is History:

     Jean-Girard LacuŽe Count of Cessac
     had the right to a bit of street under Louis-Philippe
     to a nice avenue under Napoleon the Third
     and finds himself again under the Republic
    with a modest road
     otherwise known as Terres Fortes
and so on. The originals throughout have no punctuation. I am not clear  whether or not this is a book of the highest poetic genius - I do know it is a book I am glad to have, is unlike any other, and is one I shall treasure and return to.

Cheran's In a Time of Burning looks back from exile. Again this is poetry as News, if we can hear it, if we want to hear it; and News of a very different kind. A poem called 'Four years':

     Once, on a dewy morning
     walking along the jasmine-strewn street
     I stopped short, hearing you cough:
     that memory will last to eternity
     like the parallel lines of our lives.

     If I lived at all, it was in those moments:
     when the thin clouds spread gradually
     into the evening's redness
     and I lay on the sand, my head in your lap,
     the hair curling about your earlobes,
     a trace of sadness in your eyes,
     your body yielding, your voice calling,
     your eyelids closing,
     your trembling hands tightening
    about my shoulders.
     In those perfect moments.

     But now I stand in the cold
     in the middle of a long landscape:
     a lone palmyra tree.

The translator, Lakshmi Holmstršm, says in her brief Preface, that 'Cheran steadfastly refused to align himself with any of the political groups within the Tamil community. This has enabled him to speak out against all atrocities committed, both by the Shri Lankan army and the Tamil militants. He sees his role as chronicler and witness: the poet is often present within the frame of the poem, watching, commentating, indicting.' They are powerful poems in precisely that way, the being there or imagining being there. I can in truth say these poems are for me compelling in translation, and he is our contemporary, I should say that the book will stay with me, his poems are news that is news now, Shri Lanka is in our News. But reading his and Raymond Queneau's poems I see how culturally bound I am, where my sensibilities, spontaneously, are positioned.
Cheran is in Canada now; here is a 2003 poem called 'Colour':

     In the street, dry now after a fall of snow,
     beneath the street-lamp with its dim light,
     the tip of his nose frozen and red,
     a small Canadian flag pinned carelessly
     upon his ragged, drooping overcoat,
     centuries of dirt and stains and beer-froth
     on his long, dense brown beard,
     a forest-green army cap on his head
     now shapeless,
     buffetted by snow, wind and rain,
     with hunched back, crooked nails and
     long, curly, tangled hair, he lies huddled,
     his eyes blinking frequently,
     part sunken in darkness
     part crazed. He begs for money
     and thanks those who fling him coins.

     I refused.
     'Fuck you, Paki,' he said
     turning his face away.

It's a story with a punchline, and it's interesting to compare this streets poem with any of Queneau's. 'Fuck you, Paki,'
is, so italicised (and not so in the translation), in English in the original. My impression of these two very different books, as their authors look out at their world, is of Queneau observing, engaged but from an emotional distance as well - or that his emotion is in the walking itself, in the gaze - while Cheran is having a battle of words with himself to get it clear, Shri Lanka's troubles and his own in relation to them, whether there 'at home' or in exile.

           © David Hart 2013